Greetings again from the darkness. Despite her regular role in all 7 seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and her co-lead role in the 6 season run of “Mike and Molly”, it was her raunchy turn in 2011’s BRIDESMAIDS that turned Melissa McCarthy into a star. Since then, she has been the lead in a string of comedies written specifically for her: IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, TAMMY, SPY, THE BOSS, and GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL. Mixed in was an overlooked little film called ST. VINCENT, a Bill Murray vehicle in which Ms. McCarthy first flashed some dramatic chops. With this latest, she shows that she’s no one-trick pony, but the character is a bit too narrow, and the material a bit too bland to convince us whether she is up to becoming an Oscar-caliber dramatic lead.
That’s not to say her performance isn’t noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She’s also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film’s opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to “F-off”. Classy, she’s not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.
Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore … she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others … a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.
As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days – only showing any affection for her pet cat – there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters “from” the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.
A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee’s vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee’s crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.
The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters … all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy’s expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant’s impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit “aww” from the audience.
Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990’s feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius’, which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry – though we can’t help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write … even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty … aww.